Tue, 10 Jun 2003

Linking and unlinking education and politics

Mochtar Buchori, Legislator, Jakarta

The recent debate on the education bill has shown us that education and politics are inseparable. In any country, at any time, the two are always closely linked. Education is influenced by the existing political system, but on the other hand, education shapes the future political life -- for better or for worse.

On the basis of this premise it can thus be stated that the opposing camps in the current debate on the education bill have different ideas about Indonesia's future. Those who support this bill want to see a more religious and morally disciplined Indonesia in the future. Those who denounce the bill do not want to see education dominated by religion, now or in the future. This camp feels that education and politics are both cultural forces, and while they are needed to ensure a better future, neither one should be allowed to dominate the other.

This debate also shows another reality; i.e., that our society still wants to have a plural education system, not one. The camp that supports the bill would like to see a more religious (meaning Islamic) education system in the future, whereas what the opposing camp would like to see in the future is an education system that is not overregulated by the state and not dominated by religion. The supporting camp would like to see future generations become more religious and moralistic, whereas the opposing camp would like to see future generations that will be more capable of solving our national problems.

I have to say at this juncture that I belong to the opposing camp. Having said that, let me add quickly that what disturbs me is not that we are divided into two opposing camps, but the way, rather, that the two sides have been arguing to defend and promote their respective stance. I feel most disturbed, especially, when one starts threatening to use violence to defend its stance and to draw the public to its side. Equally disturbing to me is when one starts mobilizing schoolchildren to convince the public that they are fighting for future generations.

After all the thunderous debate, how do I feel now?

There are two questions that are occupying my mind at the moment: when to link education to politics, and what the ground rules are for doing this.

My view with regard to the first question is that when an education system is at a crossroads ideologically, then you have to refer to its political basis to solve the dilemma. For instance, should state-run schools be allowed to screen prospective students on the basis of their ethnicity and their religion?

In a situation like this, education and politics have to be linked. These two questions need to be answered on the basis of political considerations. What is the politically correct answer: yes or no? It is clear that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of his or her ethnicity or religion. This would be a violation of the Constitution, and would harm all efforts to create harmony within this pluralistic society. Private schools can perhaps be politically pardoned for making these discriminations, but not state-run schools.

The other side of my view is that issues within the domain of the basic ethics of education should never be politicized. For instance, should teachers be allowed to punish students by humiliating them psychologically or hurting them physically? Clearly, the answer is "no". No amount of political arguments should be permitted to break or even dent the educational ground rule that an educational relationship has to be built upon mutual respect between the educator and the students; between those who do the guiding and those who are being guided.

There are issues, however, that are not so clear-cut. One such issue is whether it is correct to say that students have the right to demand that religious instruction at school be taught by teachers embracing the same faith as theirs.

I see some serious mistakes here. First, it is the parents -- and not the students -- who have this right. Students are born into families with a given religious belief. They did not make the choice, but their parents and forefathers did. It is pedagogically wrong to say that students have the right to something that is beyond their moral grasp. There are certain things in life to which people have a right to only after they have reached a moral maturity; i.e., the capability of making moral choices and being responsible for the choices they make. The decision to make decisions on marriage and religious matters are two examples of this kind of right.

What the drafters of this article wanted to say is, I think, that schools are obliged to provide religious education to students, and that this education should be carried out only by teachers embracing the same faith as students. But such a statement would be incorrect politically. Religious education at state-run schools is thus an issue that should be de-linked from politics.

This is one of the many reasons why I have been opposing the education bill. What if this bill is passed into law on June 20?

Education would then have to improve itself without the political support of the present elite. But with or without the political support, our education system would have to improve itself. This means that those who are determined to push our educational system to meet the challenges of the future would have to be ready to live and work against the mainstream of Indonesian politics.

Can this be done? Yes, it can. Japan did it during the fascist regime. Germany did it during the Third Reich regime. Russia has been doing it for decades. And the U.S. did it during the era when Senator McCarthy was hunting for communists in every corner of the country.

Despite all the political accidents, good education managed to prevail in those countries, albeit a little bit dented.

Good luck Indonesian education. May God guide you in your difficult journey ahead.